The 411 on teen sexting

By Amy Moeller

Amy is a therapist who has worked with children and adolescents for 25 years. She works in the Adolescent Health Department at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and treats teenagers experiencing depression, anxiety, social struggles and chemical dependency. In addition, Amy co-founded The Family Enhancement Center in south Minneapolis 17 years ago. She works at the center part time with children and families who have been affected by physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Amy is married and the mother of three children. 

As if we as parents don’t have enough to worry about, sexting has become yet one more concern for us with our already technologically savvy teenagers. Although teens are typically savvier than their parents, they also lack a basic understanding of the consequences of sending and receiving explicit text and photo messages via phone or computer.

Sexting is defined as “the practice of electronically sending sexually explicit images or messages from one person to another.” Sexting comes from the combination of the two words“sex” and “text messaging” and includes the sending of provocative messages or visual images to and from cell phones and computers.

Our teens often don’t realize the dire consequences of sexting and its ability to live in cyber space virtually forever. This phenomenon is poorly studied to this date; however, this is beginning to change with more data now available about sexting and just how common it is.

Depending on the study or the survey, somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of teens are sexting. As the trend continues, parents, teachers and lawmakers struggle with how to react to a phenomenon that ultimately puts kids at risk.

In a study reported in the September 2012 issue of The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers questioned a948 high school students in southeast Texas. The students were between the ages of 14 and 19 from seven public high schools. The following are amongst the most notable findings of the study:

  • 27.6 percent of teens reported having texted or emailed a naked picture of themselves.
  • Male and female teens send sexts with nearly the same frequency. Girls are asked more often to send a sext (65 percent) while boys more often ask for someone to send them a sext (46 percent).
  • Sexting is more common among older teens. They reported being less bothered by the requests to send a sext.
  • Of the females who had sexted before, 77 percent also reported having sex compared to 42 percent of the non-sexters.
  • In addition to being sexually active, girls who had sexted were significantly more likely to have also engaged in risky behaviors, such as drinking and using drugs before sex and having more then one sex partner.
  • Among the boys who had sent a sext, 82 percent were sexually active compared with 45 percent who had never sexted. Among males, sexting was not associated with more risky sexual behaviors.

In a nationally representative survey of 12- to 19-year-olds, the PEW Research Center conducted a series of focus groups with teens. Among their findings were that there tend to be three main scenarios for sexting:

  1. Exchange of images solely between two romantic partners.
  2. Exchange between partners that are shared with others outside the relationship.
  3. Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where at least one person hopes to be.

Although the number of teens sending and receiving sexts is lower in this study, the study covered only images (not written messages) of sexually suggestive, nude or partially nude texts and videos. Again, there was no difference between girls and boys sending sexts.

Attitudes toward sexting vary among teens. Some feel it’s a major issue, and others think it’s not a big deal. Some view it as a safer alternative to sexual activity. Others see it as potentially damaging and illegal.

Legal consequences

Illegal it is. Many states are now creating legislation to address sexting after cases of sexting have led teenagers to be prosecuted for child pornography and forced to register as a sex offender. Several teens across the country are being faced with child pornography charges after sending or receiving sexually provocative pictures of themselves or other teens. Several cases have arisen that bring charges ranging from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Social and emotional consequences

As stated above, our teens need to understand that anything can be copied, sent, posted and seen by large audiences. It does not matter the intention, or that they trusted a person not to share the photo or message. Once it is in cyberspace, it is there forever. When revealing photos are made public, the subject almost always feels humiliated. There is ridicule and the embarrassment sometimes endless. There have been some high profile cases like Jesse Logan, a Cincinnati teen who committed suicide after a nude photo she sent to her boyfriend was circulated widely around her school resulting in harassment from her classmates.

Advice for parents

  • Don’t wait for an incident to happen, talk to your teen now. Communication is key – come right out and ask them if they have been sexting.
  • Remind them that once the image is sent, it can never be retrieved. They will lose control of it.
  • Talk about the pressures to send revealing photos. Be honest about the risks.
  • Teach your child to delete anything that comes to them immediately. If they do send it on, they are breaking the law.
  • Do not see sexting as an isolated event, but as a new expression fueled by today’s technology and the social and sexual experimentation that has always been a part of adolescence.



2 thoughts on “The 411 on teen sexting

  1. Kim K

    I read this article when it was posted to Facebook through the “Bring Me The News” page.

    Superior, Wisconsin police officers with the Wisconsin Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force spoke to parents at our school in Duluth, MN. I would consider them (the Wisconsin ICAC) a great resource for any future articles on this subject.

    One thing that stood out to me from their talk, which contradicts your article:

    Teach your child to SHOW AN ADULT any “sexting” image that comes to them. Do NOT delete it and do NOT forward it.

    If a child is told simply to delete the image, an adult may never learn the original sender may be “troubled”, the images could continue to be spread (by others) and that child could eventually be harmed if the image winds up in the wrong hands.

    Kids need to know they can go to an adult with these images, not to be afraid that they may have committed a crime just by receiving it.

  2. Amy Moeller

    Hi Kim ! Thank you for that great response and comment. I agree, going to an adult with this information is ideal. I especially would want younger children (many young children now own cell phones) to hear this message.
    In reality, I find that often older teens do not go to adults. They don’t want to get their friends in trouble or they perceive that they might be in trouble. In this case, I think the take home message is to delete the message rather then pass it on.
    I do agree with you however, that telling a trusted adult should always be given to kids and teens as their first option.
    Thanks again for your great post.

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